More guns do not mean more safety

After Monday’s shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard, it seems natural for the nation to want ways to be safer. However, more guns are not the answer, says a new study in The American Journal of Medicine.

In the study, Sripal Bangalore at New York University School of Medicine and Franz Messerli at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, examined data from 27 developed countries. They focused on the number of guns per capita and rates for gun-related deaths, crime, and mental illness.

With 88.8 guns per 100 people, the United States had the highest rate of gun ownership among the 27 countries. The United States also had the highest rate of firearms-related deaths, with 10.2 per 100,000 people.

After analyzing their data, the study authors conclude:

“The present data suggest that the number of guns per capita per country correlated strongly and was an independent predictor of firearm-related deaths.”

The authors acknowledge that “correlation is not synonymous with causation.” Nonetheless, they write, “it seems conceivable that abundant gun availability facilitates firearm-related deaths.”

In any case, the study authors say, their research “debunks” the popular notion that guns make a nation safer.

The authors’ data and analysis appear sound. Yet I also note that the most persuasive graph in the AJM study is done on a logarithmic scale. In this case, the distribution of data makes this approach reasonable.

Bangalore & Messerli, "Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths," American Journal of Medicine, 2013.

Bangalore & Messerli, “Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths,” American Journal of Medicine, 2013.

Gun ownership data range from 0.6 per hundred people for Japan to 88.8 per hundred for the United States. However, more than half the values were less than 16. And the next two highest values after the United States were 45.7 per hundred for Switzerland  and 45.3 for Finland. The logarithmic trendline is a good way to present such data, and it makes the correlation clear.

Nonetheless, I can foresee some groups and advocates dissing the math and arguing instead that the graph is misleading. This would be unfortunate. For one thing, it would further confuse a public that already has dubious math literacy. More importantly, it would distract people from focusing on how the country can best counter gun violence.

Too many people have already died from gun violence. Let’s deal with the problem now—before more tragedies occur.


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